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Killing them with Kindness?

Whenever I am talking to people about the need to prioritize the people most likely to die on the streets for housing, or if I get into a discussion about performance, data, and the need to limit rules and conditions for housing so we can get people off the streets, I usually get any number of responses, depending on the audience. Often, I get a “right on!” or the less enthusiastic “that makes sense”. But, when I look at the most frequent response I get, it would be something to the effect of, “Well, Zach, there are a lot of really good, kind, people out there in agencies doing their best”. By in large, I would agree that we have an absolute army of kind, concerned people helping homeless individuals and families the best way they know how. But often, I think we tend to confuse kindness and compassion with qualification and knowledge.

Kindness is great, and we need more of it on this planet, for sure, but kindness alone does not end homelessness. Commitment, common sense, and willingness to look at facts, data, and make changes are the stuff of ending homelessness.

I experienced several frustrating issues over the past few weeks that I would like to very succinctly outline and then we can discuss to what degree kindness may have played a part, since I am repeatedly admonished about my need to realize the kindness that’s so readily available in housing and services system. I’ll refrain from pointing fingers, but these are indeed real-life issues I’ve either been informed of or have experienced myself:

  • A young woman with a two-month old infant being kicked out of a shelter for not completing her chores.
  • A shelter that automatically kicks people out after 30 days regardless of whether or not they are exiting to permanent housing.
  • A publicly funded low-income housing project that would “like to take a look at the person” before deciding whether or not they can be placed into housing.
  • A permanent supportive housing project (for persons with physical disabilities, mental illness and/or substance use issues) with a 7-page long application that asks about drug use (using extremely archaic references and language like “Quaaludes” and “Hash Oil”) while setting aside a section for unqualified staff to make a mental health diagnosis.
  • A young family sent back out from housing to live in their car.
  • Several people entering Emergency Rooms and asking to be committed to state hospitals rather than go to a shelter.
  • A person asking me, “Why are people homeless here? I was recently in Las Vegas and that seemed like a better place.”
  • A state policy and procedure document that referenced “inappropriate behavior” as a grounds for expulsion and homelessness.
  • A Rapid Re-Housing Program offering only first months’ rent across the board without taking into consideration the issues of the family or individual, their acuity, or tailoring services to meet their needs.
  • A family with an older male child separated because the project does not take “men”.
  • At least two organizations referring to themselves as coalitions to end homelessness which are obviously more interested in providing charity than ending homelessness.
  • A draft shelter policy manual that forbids “children, visitors, lights on after 10pm, lights off after 6am, anyone not a resident of West Virginia or the county in question, hugging, inappropriate clothing, or practical joking”, amongst other things too numerous to mention.
  • A shelter refusing to re-enter a man who had a heart attack and was in the hospital because he violated their “2 day absence” rule.
  • More mentions of “This won’t work here” than I can count.

So, wow. What an absolute outpouring of kindness for individuals and families experiencing what may be the most traumatic event of their lives. I’m often told about the rabid influx of homeless persons into West Virginia from other States because of our fine, quality homeless housing and services profile. And if the above list isn’t a reason for them to come running, then I don’t know what is.

All sarcasm aside, let’s look at a very fundamental concept that needs to be at the forefront of our thinking: housing is not a reward, and homelessness is not a punishment. I am ashamed that people have experienced the above issues and these are only a few I know about. It begs the question for our state, “what are we actually trying to achieve here?” and it begs the question for me, “why am I doing this”? Let’s face it, if animal shelters adopted the same mindset as I’ve cited above, people would be outraged. At least animal shelters expect animals to act like animals without an exhaustive set of pre-conditions. Would it really be that scary for us to expect that people will be people and make adjustments accordingly without an exhaustive set of pre-conditions? Could we not start from the mindset of having the least amount of rules and “hoops” needed and adjust them upward from there?

I have worked in and around shelters and supportive housing projects enough to understand the need for consistency and safety. The concept is not lost on me. What is lost on me is why we would continue to create and encourage an environment that, from the jump, communicates to people “I already expect the worst from you”. Isn’t that the antithesis of what we’re trying to convey and achieve? Or, worse yet, many of the issues I cite above plain out scream “You are not welcome here!”, which basically puts us out of business and solves or ends nothing.

In this work, we are responsible for people’s lives. Indeed, it is one of the greatest responsibilities that we can have. More than a shuffling of money, units, people, and services, our work is such that we can determine success, failure, life, and death for the persons presenting themselves at our doors. And in perhaps their greatest time of need, a time in which they need acceptance, guidance, and assistance, we pile as many conditions on them as possible. Perhaps more than they’ve ever experienced aside from possibly incarceration. Is this how we want to be known as a profession? For me, the answer is unequivocally “no”.

So, if you work in this field, I would ask you to start examining the way you do business and start asking the all important question of “why?”. If you are a funder, I would ask you to start examining whether or not you are putting expectations and accountability behind the money you provide. Or, better yet, if the money you provide is succeeding in its stated purpose. And the question I think we all need to collectively ask ourselves is whether or not that next report of someone dying on the street, in the woods, or on the riverbank is something that was worth the rules we so desperately thought we needed. Because, as with all things in life, there are tradeoffs as a consequence of our decision making.

Are you willing to trade someone’s life to maintain the status quo? 

THAT THERE SHOULD BE NO SCHISM. . .
Making The Grade

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